The Rabbi and the Businessman

This is a short story I wrote to use as a sermon. I don’t, as a rule, put sermons on the blog. But I thought since this one was a story, you might enjoy it.

The Rabbi and the Businessman
Derek Leman, Tikvat David Messianic Synagogue

This story is not completely original. I based it on a sermon by Frederick Buechner. It was the first sermon Buechner ever delivered, called “The Magnificent Defeat.” It can be found in collections such as SECRETS IN THE DARK (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

A few passers by turned their heads as they passed, noting the odd pair, a rabbi and a businessman occupying the same park bench. Neither paid any attention to the other. The businessman’s nose was in his newspaper and the rabbi’s in a book.
They were an odd pair in several ways. The rabbi’s beard was a little unkempt and his clothes a little outdated. From a stainless steel thermos he sipped on chicken soup. A small piece of noodle clung to his beard, but he was oblivious.

The businessman was carefully groomed, sporting a sixty dollar haircut and a baby-clean shave. His shirt collar was perfect, as though it were made of ivory and not cotton. An $800 jacket rested on trousers of equal cloth ending in brown Italian loafers. In his left hand was a latte in a white cup, which he almost never drank from, but which seemed to be a prop or an extension of his hand.

When it happened it was sudden and unexpected. While standing in his quick manner, the businessman unexplainably lost his balance and his left hand shot out for a grip, the latte forgotten. Suddenly the rabbi was drenched in coffee and milk.
The businessman offered profuse apologies. He had only one napkin to dab at the liquid running from the rabbi’s beard. For his part, the rabbi was oddly calm. The latte had grown cool and when it struck, the rabbi was not hurt. He accepted his drenching without moving and his face displayed no anger.

Nearby a mother watching her children play came to the rescue of both men. She kept an ample supply of paper towels and wet-wipes in her bag. Soon the rabbi was presentable again.

For some reason the businessman felt drawn to sit down and talk to this man, so different from himself, that he had inconvenienced. “Rabbi, let me ask you a question.”

Though he said nothing, it was apparent the rabbi was not opposed. “I’ve always wondered what the religious life is like. It doesn’t make sense to me. I suppose what bothers me is all that being good. What is it all for?”

The rabbi thought for a second and said, “God’s commandments are God’s commandments.”

The businessman seemed disappointed but he pressed on. “I think I know what you mean. Your certainty that God is real drives you on. But how do we know? And after all, being good never seems to help the religious. Let me tell you what I mean. I am at the top of my business. At times the only thing that got me an opportunity was a lie. At times I have even used a sort of bribe, we all do it. Certain people expect it. I’ve had to have no compassion on certain people. I’ve watched people lose everything while I moved ahead. And I enjoy it. I can do what I want when I want to do it, most of the time. But if I had been religious, the type who actually does good things, where would I be? Several of my colleagues are religious, but they are more like me and less like you. For them religion is just about attending services. They’ve made the same decisions I have, to choose success and not to always try to be good. So, if the good way does not work, and if evil is what gets a man ahead in this world, why be religious? Why believe in God at all.”

At this the rabbi brightened up. “Let me tell you a story.” Now the businessman thought things might be going somewhere. “Let me tell you a story about our ancestor Jacob, also called Israel, from whom my people get their name.”
“Once Jacob was afraid and also hopeful. He was returning to the land of his childhood, where he had been exiled by his twin brother. The brother had vowed to kill him and Jacob knew he deserved it. But now after many years, Jacob was coming back. Would all things be forgotten? Or would the vow of death remain?”

“Jacob sent his family, servants, and herds ahead. He remained on the far side of the Jabbok river, on the edge of the land. He was afraid to move. He had devised plans to give gifts to his brother, but he still was not secure.”

“Suddenly, though the desert there is flat and clear, though there are no bushes to hide behind, suddenly and without warning a man came and wrestled with Jacob. They spoke no words. All through the night they wrestled. This man was strong beyond belief, but somehow Jacob was able to hold him and not be overcome.”

“As the sun came up, Jacob had the advantage. He was about to end the wrestling match. Unexpectedly, the strange man removed one arm from Jacob’s hold. He reached down to Jacob’s hip. He touched it lightly and Jacob gasped with pain beyond bearing. His hip was dislocated. He crumpled to the ground with no strength left in him.”

“But on his way down, Jacob struck out a hand and with a grasp like steel he grabbed onto the arm of the man. The man said to Jacob, ‘Let me go, for day has broken.’”

“Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’”

“The man said, ‘What is your name.’”

“Jacob answered.”

“The man said, ‘Your name is no longer Jacob. It will be Israel, one who strives with God, for you have striven with God and men and have prevailed.’”

“Jacob said, ‘Please tell me you name?’”

“The man said, ‘Why have you asked me my name?’ And then, as Jacob wept, the man blessed him.” After that, Jacob called the place Peniel, which means, ‘I have seen God.’”

“Later that day, Jacob met his brother and death did not come. Instead the brother said he loved Jacob. Jacob returned to the land of his childhood and was blessed all the rest of his days.”

The businessman listened with interest to the story. He had heard some stories from the Bible and this one was vaguely familiar. But he waited, as if there must be more.

The rabbi could see his student did not understand. He continued, “Jacob’s life was spent getting ahead by deception. He took his brother’s birthright with some stew. He deceived his aging father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Jacob’s brother had a right to hate him and want him dead.”

Now the rabbi looked into the businessman’s eyes, “It may surprise you, but the Bible shows us that you can be successful by deception. Bad things work. Crime does pay. Lies do profit. Jacob had wives and flocks and servants.”

The rabbi paused. The businessman grew uncomfortable. Was this rabbi really exonerating him for a life of dishonesty? Sure there had to be more. Finally he opened his mouth to speak, but the rabbi then continued, “I have a theory about what Jacob saw on the man’s face just as his hip was being put out of the socket.”

The businessman was now more curious than ever. What did this have to do with the story? He was just about to ask when the rabbi continued, “He saw love. The man looked on Jacob with understanding. Jacob knew in that moment this man knew everything he had ever done. He could not hide who he was. His being was stripped bare before the all-knowing of this one. And then, with love looking down on him, Jacob received great pain.”

Now the rabbi stopped and seemed to be finished. The businessman was fascinated, even emotional. It made too much sense. The rabbi seemed ready to leave and the businessman felt desperate. “Wait,” he said urgently, “what does it all mean?”

The rabbi looked at him and smiled. There was love in the smile. “Jacob had wealth and success. But he did not have everything. In spite of himself, and because of a covenant God made with Jacob’s grandfather, Jacob had been blessed at every turn. He would have been blessed if he had not cheated and lied. But the man who wrestled with him truly was God. There was one thing left for Jacob to learn and make his life complete.”

The rabbi paused again and the businessman felt the urgency coming back. Finally, the rabbi said, “Wealth and success come to the ones who work hardest to attain them and who value them above other things. But peace with yourself, joy in the future, and love for humankind, these come only from God.”

The rabbi got up and left. The businessman could not move.

Later, passers by noted something odd. A businessman in an expensive suit sat on a park bench. His eyes were red and he had obviously been crying. But it seemed he was no longer sad. No one dared stop and ask him.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Messianic Jewish. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Rabbi and the Businessman

  1. PB and J says:


    what a great story. i will definitely share this with others too.


  2. Thomas Ho says:

    Hi Derek,

    Good stuff, enjoy it, print it, hand it over to my wife.
    I always enjoy your blog with a good old hot latte by my side.

    Elohim bless you and your family.


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